James Springer White
1821 - 1881
James White, along with his wife, Ellen, played a key role in the development and growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. While he is best known for his abilities as an organizer, publicist, writer and editor, preacher, and Bible student, he was also interested in music, partly because his father had been a teacher of vocal music.
James was born in Palmyra, Maine, the fifth of nine children of John and Elizabeth Jewett White. His father was a descendant of one of the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and his mother was a granddaughter of Samuel Shepherd, a prominent Baptist minister in New England.
Because of a devastating illness at age three, he suffered from severely crossed eyes that prevented him from reading. His eyes improved during his late teenage years, and at age nineteen he enrolled in a school in nearby St. Albans, Maine, where he did so well in the twelve-week term at the elementary level, he earned a certificate indicating he was qualified to teach. Following a brief stint in teaching, he continued his education, studying for 29 more weeks.
At age fifteen, James had joined the Christian Connection, the church of his parents. Six years later he joined the Millerite Movement, becoming an active preacher of its message about the imminent return of Christ in October 1844. Sometime after the disappointment, when the date passed without the predicted return, he met Ellen Gould Harmon and they married in August 1846. At about that time they accepted the Seventh-day Sabbath and worked together in a ministry that would lead to the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1863.
He led out in early efforts to produce song books for those who believed as they did and kept up with trends in American church music, owning personal copies of the most recent hymnals. In 1849, fourteen years before the formal organization of the Seventh-day Adventist church, he published his first hymnal, Hymns for God’s Peculiar People That Keep the Commandments of God and the Faith of Jesus, a compilation of 48 hymns. This first hymnal was a book of 58 pages, smaller than a 4X6 notecard in size, and contained words only.
In 1852 he published a hymnal which was commonly known as Advent and Sabbath Hymns. It included Annie Smith’s “Long upon the Mountains Weary,” the first published hymn by Uriah Smith’s sister. In spite of the breadth of his interests, his founding of four church publications (Present Truth, The Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, The Youth’s Instructor, and The Signs of the Times) and many other commitments, White single-handedly edited and published four hymnals and five supplements between 1849 and 1863, the first to include music with some hymns being in 1855.
Early in his ministry, White would enter where he was scheduled to preach, walking from the rear of the room, robustly singing all eight verses of “You Will See Your Lord a coming” keeping time by tapping on his Bible. Other songs were also sung in this fashion to quiet those gathered, who were profoundly affected by this entrance.
Both he and Ellen would sing to fellow workers to encourage them when spirits were low. They passed their love of singing to their children and at least two of them were active musicians, James Edson assisting his father in the preparing of at least one compilation and then later playing a key role in the publication of other early Adventist hymnals.
About 1865, James experienced a stroke that nearly proved fatal. Even though he lived, subsequent smaller strokes prevented a full recovery. Despite impaired health, during the next fifteen years he served as General Conference President at different times for a total of ten years. He was residing in Battle Creek, Michigan, when he died from pernicious malarial fever, two days after his sixtieth birthday.
Sources: Jewett Family Tree, Ancestory.com.; The Review and Herald, 9 August 1881, 104, 105; 16 August 1881, 120, 121; “Significant Mileposts in Seventh-day Adventist Hymnody,” a detailed listing available from the Adventist Heritage Center in the Andrews University James White Library; Virgil E. Robinson, James White, Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1976, 13-39, 145-150; Wayne Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh- Adventist Hymnal, Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1988; James R. Nix, “James White: Founding Father,” Adventist Review, 17 September 1987, 17; Bonnie Moyers, “What Preachers May Not Know About the Church Hymnal,” The Ministry, June 1976, 23, 24; Marilyn Thomsen, “Till Death Do Us Part,” Lake Union Herald, 19 July 1977, 4,5; SDA Commentary Reference Series, SDA Encyclopedia, Volume 10, 1966,1419-1422.